From Myanmar to Melbourne: The stunning baskets made, sold and purchased under extraordinary circumstances
With the world turned upside down and borders shut, shipping internationally has been challenging at times. Melbourne store, Pali Baskets can vouch for that.
Mother and daughter owners, Cassandra and Maggie Leever, have been faced with trying to get their locally made baskets out of Myanmar during COVID and a brutal military crackdown.
Cass and Maggie source beautifully crafted baskets from four villages in the Southeast Asian nation. The local makers and village communities rely heavily on their business for survival.
Their local contact on the ground, Ni, has managed to perform a few miracles to get the baskets out and money wired from Melbourne to the weavers.
As Cass explains, their small business journey started with a love for travel, meeting local artisans and showcasing their craft to the world.
Sendle’s small biz quiz
Cassandra and Maggie Leever
Name, title, and location
Cassandra and Maggie Leever, Owners | Melbourne, Australia.
How would you describe your business in a nutshell?
We are a mother and daughter duo that stumbled across the beautiful traditional baskets of Myanmar and fell in love!
Three and a half years later we support four village communities and sell four styles of baskets in eight sizes and endless colour combinations.
Myanmar is our second home and our team is our family.
And what about in just three words?
Ethical, Sustainable, Passionate, Empowering (for us and for them), Community (oops that’s five!)
Do you have a particular origin story or were you always wanting to start a small business?
Mum first visited Myanmar in late 2017 whilst travelling through South East Asia. She fell in love with the culture, the people, and the beauty of the country.
Mum and I have always loved local markets and I remember her sending me photos of the traditional baskets the locals were using at the Yangon market. We agreed they were beautiful and “would be awesome for fresh fruit and veg!”
Next thing, mum ditched her luggage and brought home 30 baskets. We didn’t really have a plan but had a stall at the Bayside Farmers Market in Melbourne and pretty much sold them all.
We looked at each other and laughed, “Let’s go back and get more?!” So that’s what we did.
We landed in Myanmar the following February, hired an English speaking tour guide and driver that we found on TripAdvisor and off we went, buying a few baskets from different roadside market stalls in exchange for information and phone numbers of the original source.
We had a pretty specific idea of what we were looking for and spent two weeks driving around Myanmar with the boys, visiting different villages and meeting weavers.
What did you do before you started Pali Baskets?
I studied Graphic Design and was addicted to travelling and exploring new countries. I started a small vintage clothing business as a result of obsessing over the incredible vintage and second hand pieces in Brooklyn thrift shops.
Mum was shocked when two 25kg boxes rocked up at her house from New York as I went on to travel for another few months. It was a fun few years.
I ended up travelling back to the States and Japan on sourcing trips and would then sell the stock at music festivals in Melbourne. Every piece had a backstory.
Mum has been in the rag trade her whole life, first working in sales and marketing for Levi’s. She loved that time and says it was cool, trendy and where she made lifelong friends.
What are the challenges of importing products from a country like Myanmar when you don’t speak the language?
I have been trying to learn Burmese but it is HARD!
Our interpreter Ni is the most integral person in our business. He’s in constant contact with the weavers over the phone and in person, and translates our orders and requests which are complex in regards to colours, guidelines and restrictions.
Ni handles money distribution to the weavers when we are in Melbourne. He’s on Facebook messenger and we talk almost every day, particularly at the moment with the continuing crisis.
There are so many moving parts to our operation and he is at the centre. Same for our shipping guy, Mr Ekko, he is fantastic. Shipping from Myanmar can be a logistical nightmare, but Mr Ekko is all over it and it all runs seamlessly.
It is incredibly important to have reliable people on the ground that we trust one hundred and ten percent. It would be flat out impossible to communicate or organise anything without them!
We are in awe of the incredible craft, skill and traditional Burmese weaving methods that have been passed down for generations.
What sets you apart from other businesses selling the same thing?
We know of a couple of other people selling baskets from Myanmar, mainly at markets in Queensland. There is room for us all because ultimately we have the same goal of supporting the artisans in the communities.
But I think Mum and I are a good combo—Mum with a background in wholesale, business and customer service and myself with a design and creative background.
I set up our branding and identity, eCommerce platform, marketing strategies, social channels and created all the content.
Mum researched a list of homeware stores, sustainable fashion, organic grocers, craft and knitting studios that we felt aligned with our brand and were suitable for the baskets.
Then she quite literally threw a bunch of baskets in the back of her car and personally approached the stores on the list. That was the beginning of Pali wholesale.
Now, with the power of social media we have around 160 stockists across Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the world. We often say that Mum is "old school" and I am "new school" and that definitely works to our advantage.
We are passionate and persistent—very much full-speed-ahead!
How has COVID and the government crackdown in Myanmar impacted your supply chain?
Initially, Myanmar didn’t struggle with COVID as severely as some of the neighbouring countries. Last year (2020) the weavers were still weaving, we could still wire transfer money and receive shipments.
But unfortunately they are now experiencing a horrible third wave.
The ongoing military coup that started on February 1 this year is beyond devastating and has completely brought the country to a standstill.
On top of the devastating loss of lives and freedom of the people, banks have been closed or money withdrawals heavily restricted, and the internet has been cut off.
For the past five months we have not been able to organise a shipment and it has been unsafe to send money. Luckily we are still in contact with Ni everyday over Facebook messenger as that’s a way to bypass the internet restrictions.
We were relieved this July (2021) to electronically send money to a particular bank successfully for the first time. There is no guarantee we’ll be able to organise a shipment in the near future, although our weavers are trying to remain optimistic.
We have felt so incredibly helpless this year as our team and the whole country suffers. It really is a heartbreaking and unpredictable situation.
What are you hearing from people on the ground and how are you supporting your team of weavers?
The people of Myanmar are absolutely devastated, angry and deflated. They are so brave, risking their lives daily to stand for freedom and democracy. It’s so hard to watch, particularly as there is very little news coverage.
Last year, under the democratically elected leader (Aung San Suu Kyi), COVID vaccinations were free. Now under military rule, vaccinations are the equivalent of AU$3000, an amount that most locals can’t afford.
They are anxious about the third wave and the hospitals do not have the resources or capacity to cope. Ninety percent of doctors are not working.
Pre-coup and pre-COVID we would donate money to the local schools in the villages.
With transfer limits and all of the other hurdles, our only option right now is to try and send money as frequently as we can to support our team and distribute through their communities.
Back home, how was business during the Melbourne lockdowns? eCommerce must have been critical?
Prior to COVID, online was the smallest portion of the business, making up only around 10% of our sales. In-person sales at markets and wholesale made up the other 90%.
With Melbourne in lockdown most of the year (how did we do it!?) markets weren't operating and retail storefronts were closed. We expected our sales to plummet.
The initial slowdown allowed me to channel more energy into our social media and eCommerce platforms, focusing on content and marketing campaigns.
Soon after COVID hit, our Shopify sales went ballistic. Mum and I were shocked! We were incredibly busy with orders.
When we look back at the figures, online sales went up 400%—definitely a silver lining in an otherwise bizarre time!
Can you recommend some other fabulous Melbourne based small businesses for Sendle readers?
YEVU is a social enterprise economically empowering women in Ghana. We always wear YEVU at markets as their beautiful fabrics compliment our colourful baskets.
We love ethical businesses that have a conscience, a sustainable focus and are completely transparent. We try to buy handmade, local, second-hand and ethical, steering away from any mass-produced goods.
What does sustainability mean to you and how does it play out in your business?
Sustainability is an important value for us and we are always striving to improve and minimise our impact as a business.
Our baskets are woven from a combination of new, reused and recycled colourful pallet strapping. The recycled strapping is made from plastic bottles and other plastics collected from streets, gutters and beaches in Myanmar.
Each basket is designed for longevity and provides a long-lasting alternative to single use or short-lasting bags.
We started our business just as the single-use plastic bag ban was being introduced in Australian supermarkets, so it was good timing for us. Pali baskets are perfect for supermarket shopping, so we like to think this makes for an easy decision for our customers.
When it comes to sending, we only use reused or recycled shipping boxes, our packing tape is water-activated and recyclable, and our clear tape for adhering labels is land-fill biodegradable.
We recently found a company that prints recyclable shipping labels so we are excited to start printing on them!
We have a great relationship with our local pet shop, the Chemist Warehouse and National Storage and visit weekly for second hand boxes that would otherwise go in the recycling bin. They are the perfect sizes for our baskets.
What advice would you give someone starting a small business?
Persistence is KEY.
It is extremely hard work starting a business and you have to prepare to dedicate your life to it! Mum and I still work seven days some weeks and we were working 80-hour weeks in the beginning. It really is a 24-7 job!
To be passionate would be my next tip.
It’s not always smooth-sailing so you have to love waking up and tackling the hurdles every day. We have always trusted our instincts.
How did you discover Sendle?
Gosh, it was so long ago but I think our fellow small business friends had recommended Sendle.
The carbon neutral value was the winner for us, but Sendle is also affordable and we love the convenience of door to door delivery.
We have a personal relationship with one of our pick up couriers, Bessie. She was particularly amazing last year when online was going crazy, often visiting us twice a day so we could get parcels delivered quicker!
As Sendle ensures 100% carbon neutral delivery, all of our online and wholesale orders are offset. It is important for us to be eco-conscious when it comes to packing and shipping.